Women on a Bergman screen


Leigh Singer


Published on/by

Sight & Sound


Accompanying text

With the honourable exception of Mizoguchi Kenji, it’s hard to think of another major twentieth-century pantheon auteur who made as many films with women at their heart and soul as Ingmar Bergman. Of course, he did much more, as the various brilliant roles of actors including Gunnar Björnstrand, Erland Jospehson and Max Von Sydow attest to; but time and again, Bergman explored with supreme insight his female characters’ joy and suffering, loves and losses, most heartfelt desires and deepest fears.
Inspired by his theatrical, repertory company background, the roll call of great actresses, many appearing repeatedly, astonishes: from early stars like Maj-Britt Nelson and Eva Dahlbeck, through to Gunnel Lindblomand Ingrid Thulin, Harriet and Bibi Andersson (no relation), Liv Ullmann and more. Bergman could be frustratingly fickle. In the same book, Bergman on Bergman, he admits his “compulsive… ceaseless fascination” with women, then contradicts himself by bullishly claiming, “I draw no special distinction between male and female. I’ve no decided view of women.” Yet in Images, he writes openly of film work’s “powerfully erotic business… the atmosphere is irresistibly charged with sexuality.”
His chaotic love life, including affairs with some of his leading ladies, often shows him in a poor light. In terms of working relationships, however, it’s rare to hear criticism from either side. Bergman, though often using the image of an “instrument” to describe his performers (clearly requiring a virtuoso player, i.e. himself), is effusive in his admiration. Thulin is “magnificent”; Dahlbeck “incomparable”; Harriet Andersson “one of cinema’s geniuses”. Even his namesake, Ingrid, with whom he struggled terribly to achieve her final (superb) big screen performance in Autumn Sonata, he remembers as “generous, grand, and highly talented”.
The question of whether Bergman is a ‘feminist’ filmmaker has long been debated. Jean-Luc Godard famously wrote that, “Bergman alone knows how to film men as women love yet hate them, and women as men hate yet love them.” And while he often clearly shows, in his comedies as much as his searing psychological dramas, how women are defined, contained and condemned by an unforgiving patriarchal society, the focus is usually internalised, the gaze often ambivalent.
As the same existential crises occur over and over in Bergman’s characters, this video essay is interested in a sort of polyphonic approach – as if the women in multiple films, across various decades, can somehow merge, Persona-like, and commune. Yes, all these performances and characters were shaped and guided by the man who wrote and directed them. But there’s also a strong sense that the women, and actresses, we see on these screens were ultimately able to transcend such strictures: to become the light and life force illuminating Ingmar Bergman’s beloved magic lanterns.